Rich Strike, who failed to qualify for the 20-horse Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve but received a starting gate berth when Ethereal Road scratched the day before, pulled one of the shocking upsets in the race’s 148-year history on May 7 at Churchill Downs.
Rich Strike, at 80.80-1 odds the second-longest shot ever to score in the Derby, capitalized on a scorching pace to produce an outcome that perhaps only his connections thought could come true. He had been claimed for $30,000 out of his second career start last September at Churchill Downs.
No one could have foreseen then that he would best Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner Epicenter by three-quarters of a length to deny Steve Asmussen his long-awaited Derby triumph and drop the all-time winning trainer in North American history to 0-for-24 in the race he covets most. Zandon finished third with Simplification taking fourth.
Richard Dawson, Rich Strike’s owner, insisted he had faith in his horse despite staggering odds and the colt’s 1-for-7 lifetime mark before this.
“We would never, ever put a horse in a race that we didn’t think he could win,” Dawson said during an NBC post-race interview.
He added, “We just knew we had a shot because every time he went longer, he got better.”
Said little-known trainer Eric Reed: “I knew if he got in, they would know who he was by the time the race was over.”
But Reed also acknowledged the improbability of it all.
“I never dreamed I would be here,” he said as he looked out at the crowded post-race press conference. “I never went to a sale to try to buy a Derby horse. This was never in my plans.”
He hoped he was adding a solid dirt horse and helping to rebuild Dawson’s stable when he claimed Rich Strike from trainer Joe Sharp out of a one-mile dirt race last Sept. 17. He had noted that the chestnut colt, bred by famed Calumet Farm, had turned in some sharp works before a dismal 10th place debut in an Aug. 15 turf race at Ellis Park.
He thought the youngster might run to his works with a shift to dirt and was willing to test that belief by dropping a claim slip before the juvenile’s one-mile dirt debut. The only suspense after Rich Strike rolled by 17 1/4 lengths was whether the claiming attempt had been successful. It had been.
“I had no expectations like this at the time,” Reed said. “I just thought we made a good claim. I guess we did.”
The Derby upset was worth $1.86 million to a 3-year-old that had previously earned $111,289. He had shown some ability but nothing eye-catching in his first three starts this year — all on Turfway Park’s synthetic surface — by sandwiching third-place finishes around a fourth-place effort. In his last start, he had rallied for third in the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks, trailing victorious Tiz the Bomb by 5 ¾ lengths. Tiz the Bomb, incidentally, finished up the track in ninth in one of the Derby’s wackiest editions.
The opening leg of the Triple Crown set up perfectly for Rich Strike to strike it rich and snap a five-race losing streak. Summer Is Tomorrow, at 36.80-1, did everything he could to steal the mile-and-a-quarter classic by setting blistering fractions, taking the field of 20 through an opening half-mile in a scorching 45.36 seconds. They were still humming along through an opening three-quarters in 1:10.34 en route to a final time of 2:02.61.
Rich Strike lit up the tote board by paying $163.60 to win, 74.20 to place, and 28.40 to show.
“A dream come true,” jockey Sonny Leon said after his first graded-stakes victory.
The Venezuelan-born Leon is best known as the leading rider at Mahoning Valley in Youngstown, Ohio, the last three years. He was nowhere to be found at Churchill Downs on Longines Kentucky Oaks day, instead accepting six mounts at Belterra Park in Cincinnati.
Yet the most exciting two minutes in sports were not too big for him. He patiently worked his way through traffic, then made a bold and decisive move up the rail during the stretch run as one prime contender after another yielded to fatigue.
Donerail had ranked as the longest of longshots in Derby history, pulling off what seemed impossible at 91-1 odds in 1913.
Rich Strike may still need some work as far as handling his new-found celebrity. He was so wired after the finish that he repeatedly attempted to savage the lead pony that arrived to accompany him to the winner’s circle.